Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Manna From Heaven Slathered in Hot Bacon Dressing

“Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad. Used to know a girl that lived down there and she’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it.” – Poke Salad Annie by Tony Joe White

One of spring’s most under-appreciated plants grows on virtually every unadulterated lawn around Landis Valley: the humble dandelion. For those of us that yearn for a good spring vegetable that doesn’t come from thousands of miles away, or from a hothouse or a pickle jar, dandelions are a godsend. Manna from heaven slathered in hot bacon dressing.

Or cream dressing. Either way, dandelions, along with very young poke shoots, were the spring tonic we eagerly awaited back in my day. Pennsylvania German tradition states that they should be eaten on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter, also known as Green Thursday) to ensure good health. Dandelions provided fiber, vitamins and trace minerals that our bodies craved after a long, lean winter so I suppose the tradition had a basis in fact. Early settlers brought them from Europe, knowing that they do very well with little to no attention from the gardener.

They were a short lived pleasure, as they are best before the flowers come out. After that, they’re too bitter and your salad would have to be more dressing than greens. That’s alright, though, as by that time spinach and early lettuce leaves would be just about ready to pluck and toss into a salad. Some say that these later dressing-encased dandelion salads are better, as bacon dressing makes just about everything great. Polly, one of our Heirloom Seed Program volunteers, used to enjoy the dressing-slathered salad on top of potatoes, like gravy, and make a meal out of it.

Dandelion’s usefulness doesn’t stop there. Once the flowers come, they, too, can be plucked and either chucked at your brother if your parents aren’t looking or, more importantly, they can be used to make dandelion wine.
Dandelion wine begins with fully unfurled, morning-picked flowers doused in boiling water and left to set for a day or two. Flower petals with as few greens attached as possible are best for this purpose, as the green parts are very bitter.

After that, sugar, lemon and yeast are added. The mixture is left to set for days as the yeast work their magic on the sugar and then settle to the bottom. If the sediment becomes thick, it could be siphoned out, but it isn’t necessary. About a year later, the drink is ready to enjoy.

And enjoy it we did. It surprises me to this day that dandelion wine is not more popular, as it was made extensively by the Pennsylvania German families that settled here in Southeastern. The best brews taste like a good sherry and are a golden amber color. My museum has a recipe for this and Dandelion Greens with Hot Bacon Dressing in the Landis Valley Cookbook, if you would like to try making it sometime. The book is available at the Weathervane Museum Store or on Amazon.com.

Photo by Craig Benner
 You can also learn more about dandelions from Mike McGrath, host of the WHYY radio show, “You Bet Your Garden” at the 25th Annual Herb and Garden Faire, this May 11 and 12 (Mother’s Day weekend) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mike will be hosting 2 one-hour question and answer sessions starting at noon and 2 p.m. on Saturday. After that, he will be signing books.